Planning a Trip to Europe - London and Paris Part Deux, Hotels and Activities.

9:57 PM AirplaneFoodCritic 0 Comments

Paris as seen from the top of Notre Dame Cathedral

Once you know where you are going, in my case right now, a quick getaway to London and Paris for my 40th birthday, and you know when you are going, as in what days you are flying then you get to do what I consider the most enjoyable part of the trip planning, the activities and hotel finding.

Oh you know, just opening a TARDIS with my own key.

Finding a hotel can actually be tedious after a while but it is also exciting because it is looking for what will be your home for a few days and that is important. It will have a big impact on how your trip goes, how it feels. If you have a hotel in a bad area, you might be afraid of leaving and venturing out. If you have a hotel that is way over your budget, you might be afraid, or worse, UNABLE to spend any money on fun things and attractions. If your hotel is funky, then you might not sleep well and that ruins your day ahead. I have a great way to find out what a hotel is really like. I will share that in a moment. First you need to know WHERE in the city or town you would like to stay. London is massive and I almost had a panic attack when I looked at it trying to find where I would want to stay. Then I calmed down a little and thought it through. I actually asked my good friend who lives in the area where was best to stay and he told me...BUT...normally I do what I did to find where to get our hotel in Paris which is first to plot on a map the most popular attractions I want to see. Once you do that, you can -hopefully- see a grouping. When you see a cluster you can know that is might be best to stay in a hotel in the middle of that area. This will save you time and money getting to the majority of the attractions. It is even more paramount for me to be in the center of the activities I want to do because of my illness that prevents me from being able to walk for long periods of time without exhaustion and extreme pain.

I thought to ask my friend in London where to stay because I recall him visiting me in San Francisco and I knew right where to tell him to stay. If you are wondering, I always suggest the Fisherman's Wharf area for lots of reasons that I won't get into in this blog posting. He immediately suggested I stay in West London. I looked at the map of London on Google and I could see the attractions I wanted to see all grouping in that area so I knew it was sound advice. I would recommend anyone visiting London to stay in the same area as well because of all there is to do there. Their Underground/Subway system is simple and effective so getting to any out of the area places is easy to do as well on those days you want to check something out not in West London like Abbey Road for example.

To find a hotel, I next zoomed in on the whole of West London and again pinpointed the attractions I knew I would want to experience like the National Gallery, Buckingham Palace, The British Museum etc. As I noted the locations of these places I naturally zeroed in on the Piccadilly Circus area. Next I went to a booking website and made a narrow search that kept me in the general area. I noted the prices of hotels in the region and decided on a price range that I was willing to spend to stay there. It will always be that the better the location, the higher the prices, but there are things you can do to balance out the costs. You certainly can choose an out of the way hotel but I can't do that. You can give up amenities like a spa or even internet. You can skip breakfast as well but I like to include it usually because I have found that I can save money if I stuff my face at breakfast and skip lunch. This does not always work as I found out on my recent trip to London this year where the breakfast was skimpy for the huge price. I asked at the desk to have the breakfasts removed from my bill and they obliged because they agreed that there were too many people and food was too scarce. In fact, not only was food scarce but plates, bowls and utensils were also unavailable so in this case we were able to cut loose. It became more cost effective to find an outside cafe to eat at. Then we still stuffed our bellies and skipped lunch. In London, and really in the area we stayed in, there was an abundance and variety of places to have breakfast so it made sense.

Full English Breakfast at one of the cafes we visited for breakfast.

Once you have figured out a price range you are happy with for the area you are willing to stay in, and the amenities you are willing to keep and/or give up, do a search on the booking site with your parameters and see what comes up. I have trouble believing the "star system". I don't really know who is giving these hotels their stars. Is it a 5 star hotel? Out of how many stars? What is the criteria for the stars? I use the star system as a guide knowing just that I don't want one star and I don't need 5+ stars. After that, I go from hotel to hotel looking at how cute they look and their exact location. Once I find one or hopefully several that I am interested in I go to another website to get the REAL info on the hotel quality and appearance. We all know that most hotels use professionals to market themselves. I belong to several travel blogs and have read many horror stories about people seeing these great photos of massive pools, quiet rooms and clean streets only to find out it was all a trick of the camera lens.

Unexpected Dalek attacks can ruin a trip

Hotels will also hire people (or I guess do it themselves) to write great reviews so they look better on sites like Yelp. This might be a bit more difficult to discern between the lies and the reality but there is a website you probably have heard of called TripAdvisor that is like a Yelp for hotels. TripAdvisor offers lots of information on travel beyond just hotels but it is by far most useful at ferreting out good and bad hotels. The asset it has is the photos from the travelers themselves. You first find the hotel you are interested in on TripAdvisor by Googling the hotel name and using the word tripadvisor or you can go to the TripAdvisor website and do a search. Once there, you can do a little reading about the people's experience and more importantly, check out the photos. When you see the page of your hotel you will see the photos separated out by "Hotel Photos" and "Traveler Photos". It is the latter that you need to look at. These are the photos that you can trust to have no trickery in them. Sure, sometimes you find a hotel dominated by one person's horrible experience but despite their bias, the photos still don't lie. The Traveler Photo section is further divided into several categories like Room/suite, Bathroom, View from room, and more. I recommend you have a good look around at the photos to make your decision on where to stay. If you still are having trouble deciding between a couple, then it's time to read the comments on TripAdvisor. Here, again, I don't much care about the star ratings unless it is extreme. If one person complains about the cleanliness or something I also don't care. People are all different and all have different tastes. What I am looking for in a hotel might not be what you find ideal in a hotel. It is time to worry when everyone starts complaining about the same thing. Then you know that there is an ongoing problem. Things like hidden charges, ripoffs and bugs are things I run from.

It's tough work being the Doctor's companion

After plenty of research of this nature, I choose a hotel and book it, either through or sometimes through the hotel website. Sometimes I can find a coupon or I find that one site has a lower price than the other. Spend a little time googling the hotel, using sites like and even or kayak or hipmonk to find the lowest price. If upon checkout you see a place to put a coupon code, do a bit more googling to find one that might be posted somewhere. Don't forget about AAA discounts and AARP or any other discount you might qualify for.

I like to get insurance if it is affordable. Sometimes it costs half the price of the hotel itself rendering it pretty much moot. For an extra $25 or so I am happy to pay for the security of having insurance. Insurance on a hotel means that you can get your money back if you have to cancel for unforeseen reasons like if you get sick. This almost happened to us on this very trip which would have been unfortunate because, as an unemployed person, I could not really afford the insurance so I did not buy any for the London hotel. Then a couple weeks before we are supposed to leave for our lovely trip, I get a little indigestion. That turned into an emergency room visit. That turned into surgery to remove my appendix! If it had happened any days later than it did, I would not have made the trip and would have lost a LOT of money.

Me, a couple weeks before our trip with an emergency Laparoscopic Appendectomy! 

Now you have done all the hardest of the work, the REAL fun begins. You get to figure out what you are going to be doing all day and night. My method is to make a plan of everything I want to do for each day of the trip but I don't follow it to the last detail. It is more of a suggestion. We always stray from the original plan. Sometimes we find a new thing to do entirely and often we skip an activity or two. Either way, I like to know what all the options are so I can decide when I get there what is best. This is where google and travel books come in. The best travel books, in my opinion, are the EyeWitness books. I downloaded the London and Paris ones. I used google for searches like "Paris for Vegetarians" or "London on a budget", "Secret London", "Most Romantic Places in Paris" etc. I make a google document with copy and pasting of anything that interests me. I make a list of all museums in the area. I love museums. Then I research each one, making a written list of the things in each museum and why I might visit it, the significance of each one, the cost, hours and restrictions. I use YouTube to do walkthroughs. For massive museums like the Louvre or the British Museum I used these tools to make a plan of attack because we don't have the time and I don't have the energy to see every piece of art in it. There are things one MUST see like the Mona Lisa, Winged Victory and the Venus de Milo and more then there are the things we are interested in, personally, like Flemish paintings and Egyptian artifacts.

The Ravens at the Tower of London are an important part of it's history

Once I have a huge list of all the things I want to do, I mark it all on a map. This way I can look at the map and group nearby things together. I break the groups up into days and make the quickest route. Doing this, I also have to take into consideration the days some attractions are closed or a certain event is happening. Once I put that all together, including the way I will get from one place to another I make a play by play itinerary. I include what we will be doing, the time it takes to do it, the cost, perhaps things I should be ordering to eat or drink, and more.

I pretty much gave you the light version of how to plan a trip but I hope that it helps at least a few people who are on the fence about going to Europe from the US or Canada. If there are any specific questions I would be happy to answer them in the comments section. I am hoping to blog my most recent trip in the following month or so.

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